Site icon S Y N A P S I S

On Course Revision

an etching on ivory paper of a bearded man in robes sharpening a quill in front of his writing desk piled with books.

"The Scribe," n.d., Salomon de Koninck

Part of the privilege of junior leave is having a crucial opportunity for pause and reflection after the first few years of being on the tenure track. As I witness my fellow colleagues return to the classroom, many with new special topics courses, courses they’ve never taught before, or new versions of bread-and-butter courses they’ve always taught, I am prompted to think about my own slate of courses that I offer: how have I conceptualized and executed courses thus far and to what ends? Why do these courses matter to me in relation to the needs of my department, my institution? What narratives are my courses guiding my students through and how does my expertise shape that narrative, for better or for worse?

Having arrived at my institution as a sole replacement for two senior colleagues in my field, I have both tried to honor their legacy while also revising and updating their permanent courses in our curriculum while also contributing new courses in Health Humanities and Disability Studies. This has meant essentially teaching new courses every single semester since I arrived in 2020. With a quick count, I also realized that I have been teaching some version of a Health Humanities / Disability Studies survey since I was a graduate student. In those early years, including my postdoctoral years, I didn’t hesitate to teach a new course (in the face of precarity, you find yourself rarely able to say no) if it meant filling a gap or expanding what was already offered. But the speed of academia has a way of limiting the pedagogical imagination—the exigencies of the semester (many of mine were/are pandemic ones) put unique pressures on how my courses would run, who became part of my classroom communities, and what I could reasonably do under such conditions. I acknowledge (and embrace) that my courses are products of specific conditions that sometimes were deeply antithetical to the work I wanted to do with my students. Yet rather than parse the micro-decisions of my syllabi construction or reevaluating the topic areas and methodologies that my courses tend to cover, I want to meditate on what it means to revise a course and what my intentions are for revision.

I currently teach a 200-level course (at my institution, this numerical designation refers to courses designed typically for second-years who have at least completed a 100-level introduction to literary study) entitled “Literature, Medicine, and Culture,” which introduces students to the fields of Health Humanities and Disability Studies through both readings in theory and literature. My course also counts for the “methods” requirement, which invites students to explore specific approaches to literary study and their potential applications to critical analysis. My course achieves this by embracing the survey in a very literal way: an overview and mapping out of the different conversations and conceptual terrains of two fields that are simultaneously in conversation and in tension with one another. I have found this to be a powerful way to situate students, many of whom are not English majors or are doubling in English with a STEM discipline, to think about these fields as not only developing ones but ones that are constantly shaped by how we participate in them and in what ways we do that.

Yet, in my department, we don’t tend to offer the conventional survey (at least not in the traditional sense of surveys of literary periods) in favor of more theoretically, thematically, or generically specific courses. As someone who teaches in fields that students do not tend to be the most excited about or do not tend to have much familiarity with, I have tended to operate on the assumption that my course may be the one and only time a student engages with this field of study. I tend to describe my approach as the “breadth over depth” model, which I feel captures the sense of my course as a sampling of what my fields look like and where they might be going. Sometimes, this means a “greatest hits” approach of canonical texts and canonical readings of those texts. This can also mean a slow, guided walkthrough of fundamental work in the field and how it established specific objects of inquiry and the questions we can ask about those objects. This also could mean putting older models of scholarship in dialogue with new ones to really show change over time and the assumptions we have inherited that a field has made commonplace. The core philosophy here is exposure to as much as reasonably possible to give students inroads into the material and methodologies that they may pursue in relation to their own interests.

My first instinct for revising the course would be to put pressure on the “breadth over depth” model and ask myself what my impulses are toward this broader approach. I have named one of them above: my urgency to introduce students to as much of my fields as possible, especially if they may never revisit them during their academic careers. The other is an anxiety about alienating students who are dipping their toes in the field or may even be skeptical about or resistant to the field entirely. This is also why I tend not to teach materials related to my research, which can feel to some students like the course is an extended reading list for a book project. To remain on the surface, in this sense, helps keep the course accessible. Accessible here means not just that the material is easier to engage with or to grasp but also safe and accountable to both students and myself as we navigate it, especially in terms of more challenging topics like medical trauma.

The balance is always precarious between facilitating the work of those who want to do deeper work and those who are just getting their feet wet. A depth approach can in fact achieve both if the course is designed in a layered way to allow students to engage at different levels. This signals to me that it is more about the course activities and forms of assessment rather than just the content being offered. Given my own fairly traditional experience of literary studies, this risk-taking in terms of course design feels new and daunting, especially as I have relied on fairly standard assignments like short essays or take-home essay exams or annotated bibliographies. These conventional assignments, I confess, feel familiar, especially after years of using them across different courses at multiple levels and becoming comfortable offering constructive feedback on those assessments. But I am particularly inspired by my colleagues adopting ungrading or contract grading approaches to their course design, which have encouraged students to take risks intellectually and play with ideas over the course of their introduction to a set of scholarly conversations. There are so many different ways breadth can be explored.

The outcome of these reflections may be the development of another course at a higher level. Rather than put all the pressure on “Literature, Medicine, and Culture” to do all this heavy lifting, what would it mean to see it as a gateway to an upper-division course that can do the deeper dives into theory and scholarship? Revision in this case might mean less of a reconceptualization of my 200-level course and more of a longer-term project of guiding students toward a greater engagement with the field beyond a singular semester. The pressure to address both of these interdisciplinary fields simultaneously and in the span of a fifteen-week semester so often feels like compression and oversimplification. To break up the class into separate courses or a multi-semester course feels more additive rather than subtractive—there can be room for more as opposed to paring away at a broader course. Expansion as revision.

With the possibility of a concentration, minor, or even major on the horizon, this feels like the most forward-thinking way of going about this revision. A revision toward possible futures and collaborations with colleagues all over the College. I think this marks a crucial shift in my own understanding of pedagogy, which has tended to be very individualistic in my early experiences as a teacher. Certainly, we individually have to design and execute our courses, but to think about them in terms of a curriculum, a department, and a campus community demands a more relational understanding of what we do in the classroom. I’m aware this may seem deeply obvious, but I am becoming more and more conscious about the way courses get talked about as if they are owned property or belonging to the purview of singular people and programs. Have my courses precluded the possibility that similar work may be going on elsewhere under different names and in different ways? Most difficult for me: have precarity and the academic job market calcified my ways of thinking about pedagogy in ways that turn inward rather than outward to the communities around me and the ones that I serve?

Course revision has started to become, for me, much more than tweaking readings or editing course objectives: it is part of a larger, belated process of self-reflection about my own pedagogical comfort zones and anxieties, as well as about my own limited imagination about what my courses can do beyond sharing my expertise. If so much of my pedagogy is predicated on shared vulnerability and disorientation made possible through careful encounters with literature and history, what barriers am I myself putting up in opposition to that philosophy in the design of my course and in the lived experiences of that course? How do I cultivate a transformative classroom experience that moves beyond content coverage and skill acquisition even as the humanities continues to be threatened to justify their value? When we ask these questions, is course revision really ever as simple as “updating” or “tweaking”?

Exit mobile version